When I listen to the versions of the Christian gospel that get passed around by some American religious voices these days, I’m not all that surprised that some of my secular friends don’t have much interest. We recall childhood images of a heavenly Father floating on clouds, and placid angels with harps. We reassure ourselves about a non-physical life after death, and we tell our bereaved friends that their loved ones are “in a better place.”
Some of our readers might be surprised, but these Hallmark-card versions of the Christian gospel have almost nothing to do with the Bible’s message of Easter.
Because on Easter, we affirm the undeniably physical resurrection of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. When the Gospels say that Jesus rose from the dead, they don’t mean he went up into the blue light of the afterlife, or floated off into some spiritual realm. They mean that his physical body came back to life in a fully physical manner. He ate fish. He bore scars from his crucifixion. He broke bread with his disoriented followers on the Road to Emmaus.
And yet, the Gospels also tell us that Jesus’ risen form was glorious – far more than a restoration of the bodily life that he had once possessed. Mary fell at his feet when she saw him. He appeared among his cowering disciples while the door was locked against intruders. And he ascended into the clouds in glory.
In marked contrast to popular religious notions, the hope of the gospel is principally this: What the creator God has done in Jesus’ resurrection is what he intends to do for the whole world – meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history.[i] We are not waiting to be whisked away from a decaying physical earth to our home in some disembodied spirit-realm. We are waiting for the new heavens and new earth to come down to our world.[ii] And we are praying for “thy kingdom” to come, “and thy will” to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The Easter story has little promise for those who are waiting to be taken to their home in the sky. Because it tells us that the creator is deeply committed to the physical world and physical people he has made.
But many Christians themselves seem to have forgotten this core idea. We go on and on about “going to heaven when we die,” something almost never mentioned in the Bible. We treat the created world as though we were Gnostics or Platonists – ignoring the earthy, sweaty, salty, pulsating and beautiful creation, in favor of some disembodied destiny in a “spiritual” afterlife.
Our secular friends are largely right: This version of the gospel deserves their skepticism.
But N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, tells us of a time when the Christian witness was much more powerful, because it was energized by the resurrection vision of Easter:
“It was people who believed robustly in the resurrection, not people who compromised and went in for a mere spiritualized survival, who stood up against Caesar in the first centuries of the Christian era. A piety which sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ a time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace,’ has no quarrel with those who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends.
“Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice, and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise, not to a meek acquiescence in injustice in the world, but to a robust determination to oppose it. It is telling that English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) at the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead.”[iii]
Here at the Clothesline Report, we are deeply committed to justice for the most vulnerable in an increasingly degraded world. And while in this we make common cause with people of all faiths, we are motivated by one vision: Our world belongs to its Creator; he is deeply committed to the physical creation, which he made for his pleasure; he is actively reconciling all things to himself in Christ; and he is returning one day to make all things – people, lands, forests, skies, culture, oceans, ALL THINGS – new under his just and righteous rule.
Happy Easter to you. The Lord is risen!
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.